Nonsense and Sensibility (pt. 1): Bad journalism

Rob Foldy

The baseball world is rife with misinformation, ignorance, and entitlement. CRPerry13 cajoles readers to open their eyes and take what they read with a grain of salt unless it is provided with credible supporting evidence.

Benjamin Carson once said, "Quite frankly, having an uninformed populace works extremely well, particularly when you have a media that doesn't understand its responsibility and feels more like it's an arm of a political party.  They can really take advantage of an uninformed populace."

Though Mr. Carson was speaking about politics, the sentiment can also be applied to the world of baseball.  The world of baseball is more than the box score and the three hour game.  It's agents and contracts and reporters and front offices and farm systems and international kids and little leagues and coaches and parents and bloggers and clubhouse attendants and PED's and rich people and poor people and scouts and analysts and bat manufacturers and anti-trust exemptions.

Several factors contribute to baseball being a world that is almost entirely consisting of an uninformed populace.  The anti-trust exemption means that teams have no obligation to divulge any piece of information to the public.  Scouting, analytics, medical research, finances...these things are all under lock and key, hoarded by teams lest they give up a piece of competitive advantage.

Unfortunately, an uninformed populace is one that likes to leap to conclusions, create villains, and glorify unfounded soundbites.

That's where I come in.  It drives me crazy.  It grinds my gears.

I had the good fortune of being invited to the Astros' blogger's night event a couple Fridays ago, during which a small group of us spent 45 minutes in discussion with Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Assistant Director of Player Development Allen Rowin.  I asked the very first question, and it was, "Does it frustrate you when we get something wrong because the information is wrong and it's something you can't share?"

Luhnow's answer:

"I'm used to it.  The answer is yes...it's part of what we have to deal with, unfortunately.  We can't be transparent on everything, not just because of rules and regulations out there, but because we don't want every other club out there to know what we're doing."  He continued, "The thing that frustrates me more than anything is the lack of true journalistic ethics that used to exist and no longer does.  I'm talking about this desire to be first in stuff -- that journalists who are 'credible', magazines and papers, end up saying that just are not true.  And they say it as fact, and it's really frustrating.  My brother's a journalist, but he would never do something like that.  He was brought up in the old-school, you gotta have your sources, you gotta confirm your sources, you gotta be right."

It was obvious from the beginning that this is something he feels strongly about, but is unable to influence.  Uninformed populaces believe what they want to believe, and usually they want to believe any so-called "fact" that gets them the most worked up.  I wasn't sure how to work his answer into an article, because it had little to do with baseball or baseball operations.  But it was a subject that I personally wished to explore.*

*I declined to include the large section of Luhnow's quote in which he spoke appreciatively of the blogger community, acknowledging that we seemed much more concerned with accuracy and analysis than we do being 'first'.  He said some very complimentary things, and his frustration was directed more towards the credentialed media.  Whether he was blowing smoke at us or not was irrelevant, I thought it was very nice of him, and incidentally, I agree.

When Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle published his article on May 23 titled, "Radical ways paint Astros as outcast", he gave me a starting point from which to express my frustration with the miasma of ignorance that surrounds the game of baseball.

Let me say first that Drellich is the best thing that has happened to Houston sports writing in a very long while.  He is a true journalistic voice in a pool of very questionable quality that resides in the Chronicle's sports section.  Drellich is excellent, and he tackles the subject very well in his article.  Worth a read, please do so.

But my problem isn't that Drellich covered these topics, or with his reporting.  My problem is the ignorance that he exposes on the part of those within baseball that are just as uninformed as the general populace, but who are in a position to do real damage with their opinions.  Here is a list of the things about the baseball world that bother me most.

  1. Irresponsible reporting
  2. Condescending dismissiveness of anything that doesn't goose-step in line with "the way things have always been done"
  3. The entitled attitude of spoiled kids

I can't cover all three with less than four thousand words, and so I've decided to split this up into two parts.  This first part covers one of the root causes of my other frustrations, the problem with irresponsible reporting in modern writing.

Irresponsible reporting

It is easy to understand Luhnow's (and probably every office person who works in baseball) frustration with the media.  Front office decisions are routinely questioned by people with an audience who pass off their opinions to readers.  Those readers absorb the ignorance because, after all, the writer is supposed to have inside knowledge, right?

And so we get situations like this past weekend.

Scenario:  Astros 5th-starter Brad Peacock comes down with forearm tightness.  Astros call up Rudy Owens from AAA to take the start.

Context:  This is Rudy Owens' first major league start.  Top-ish pitching prospect Mike Foltynewicz is also in AAA, with a 3.86 ERA.

Immediate Reaction:  Outrage from the Chronicle's Jose de Jesus Ortiz, who continues to give the impression that he is the anti-Drellich, a writer primarily concerned with saying "I told you so", being first, and drumming up readers' reactions to drive web hit counts.

Note, the "better prospect" that Ortiz referred to, mentioned in others of his tweets, was right-hander Mike Foltynewicz.

Without contacting the front office, without looking at the situation deeper, a reporter who is the incoming president of the Baseball Writers Association of America not only publicly questioned the decision to call up Owens over Foltynewicz, but he labeled the Astros with a not-so-clever play on Luhnow's name, "#LoseNow".  Never mind the following points:

  • Foltynewicz had started too recently to be able to make last night's start with a reasonable amount of rest.
  • Owens was on the 40-man roster....recalling Foltynewicz would have required that some other deserving young man be cut from the team.
  • Owens, as one of the centerpieces of the Wandy Rodriguez trade and owner of a 3.38 FIP in AAA this year, was as deserving or even more deserving of a call up than Foltynewicz.
  • Owens, at age 26, has far less of his career in front of him than Foltynewicz, and is no less deserving of an opportunity because he has not appeared on any Top 100 prospect lists.
  • It was a single start, and Owens was sent immediately back to AAA after the start, a situation that occurs all the time in Major League Baseball, with all teams.  Since (as Ortiz rudely points out) Foltynewicz is "a better prospect", that means Owens is unfortunately more expendable.

But that's just the tip of the bad-journalism iceberg.  Last season, Forbes writer Dan Alexander published an article,  titled "2013 Houston Astros - Baseball's worst team is the most profitable in history."  The story, presented as fact by the author, was so filled with dubious assumptions and claims that another Forbes writer, Maury Brown, published a scathing rebuttal not a week later titled "Erroneous story claiming Houston Astros most profitable ever a massive strikeout."  But the damage had been done.  According to Luhnow, he still has to defend himself against the poorly-researched and un-corroborated claims in Alexander's first story.  The story has damaged the franchise's reputation.  All because some ivy-league-educated blogger decided that he was above following the precepts of journalistic integrity that he was no doubt taught to use in college.

More recently, Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal came out with a post titled, "System discourages teams from promoting top prospects" in which he uses the example of George Springer to complain about the way teams exploit their top prospects.  He comes to the conclusion that

"If Springer had signed long term, the Astros might not have hesitated to promote him. His countdown to arbitration and free agency no longer would have been a concern.

While some might interpret the Astros' reluctance to accelerate Springer's arrival as punishment for him not accepting their offer, the team sees it differently, sources said."

Rosenthal named no sources as the root of the $23-million contract that the claims the Astros offered Springer.  He passed off the information as fact without verifying it with anybody.  Likewise, his "some might interpret" sentence might as well say "I think the Astros are punishing Springer for not accepting their offer," since he never actually quotes anybody as saying they think any such thing.

Much outrage ensued, including article after article lambasting the Astros for trying to rip off the poor, taken-advantage-of George Springer.  They accused the Astros of throwing up a smokescreen when the club said they wanted Springer to work on his Right Field defense in Triple-A.

What really happened?  Rosenthal buried a tidbit in a post two months later titled "Look out for the Red Sox next wave of infielders"  In an article about the Red Sox, he says

On March 19, I reported that the Astros had made outfielder George Springer a seven-year, $23 million offer last September, an offer that the player rejected.

That report was not entirely accurate.

The actual offer, according to major-league sources, was four years, $7.6 million guaranteed, with the chance for Springer to make $23 million if the Astros exercised three club options.

Oops.  And still, he cites no major-league sources.  There's no evidence that this new figure is any more accurate than the last one.  But again, the damage was already done.  No matter that after Springer's call up to the major leagues, he made more errors in Right Field than any other player has in so short a time in the history of the sport.  No, says the uninformed populace, obviously the Astros only held him down to be vindictive.

Conclusion to Part 1

In the interest in keeping an audience (and web hit counts!) I will wrap up Part 1 with a plea to the uninformed populace to not believe everything it reads unless it is provided with real references.  There may be accurate information presented in an article, but without corroboration or proof, it's very possible that the information was received from a player's agent with an agenda or from a disgruntled parent, neither of whom are privy to the reasons behind decisions made by the front office.  Be skeptical.  These days you have to, lest you end up looking like as big a fool as the person who served you the bad info in the first place.  The fact is, being wrong does not hurt the journalist or the reader.  But it might hurt somebody, and that is reason enough to question what you read.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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